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Border security bargainers get to work, still miles apart

First conference committee meeting does little to close the divide

From left, Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk before the start of the Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk before the start of the Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Committee on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats showed few signs of giving in to President Donald Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion for a border wall as a conference committee began talks Wednesday to strike a border security deal that would also fund the Department of Homeland Security for fiscal 2019.

But both sides expressed optimism and pledged to work toward an agreement by the Feb. 15 deadline that the president can sign, and thus avoid another partial government shutdown.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and of the conference, outlined in general terms the House Democrats’ proposal and indicated some flexibility that her side would be willing to spend more on border security.

“Along with my Democratic colleagues, I am ready to work in good faith to write a Department of Homeland Security bill that funds smart, effective border security. In doing so, we will expand on the $1.6 billion for border security-related programs that House Democrats have already passed in the last few weeks in other appropriations bills,” she said.

These investments, she said, include enhancing security at land ports of entry, hiring additional immigration judges to reduce an immigration case backlog that has already hit 800,000 cases, and providing more resources for humanitarian needs for children and families arriving at the southern border.

No emergency funds

House Democrats at a press conference after the conference meeting discussed their priorities in broad terms, which they said would fit within a total regular spending allocation of $49.1 billion for the DHS appropriations bill. That figure is about $800 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved on a 26-5 vote last year, which included $1.6 billion for 65 miles of fencing along the southwest border.

Last week Senate Republicans unveiled a version that had $49.4 billion in regular discretionary spending, only slightly more than the House has set aside, in part because Democrats in that chamber have included more for ports of entry improvements in the Financial Services spending bill.

But the Senate GOP padded their bill with another nearly $5.6 billion in emergency spending to meet Trump’s demands, including an extra $3.7 billion for the border security assets infrastructure account where wall funding resides. House Democrats say emergency funding to get around budget caps won’t be part of their proposal.

“We don’t want to do emergency funding,” said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.

A one-page outline of the House Democrats proposal, which doesn’t provide any dollar figures, says it will contain funds “for a smart, effective border security posture, one that does not rely on costly physical barriers.”

One offsetting cut in their proposal appears to be funds for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds for migrants in custody. The outline says their bill “significantly reduces ICE detention beds; requires more frequent detention facility inspections, and limits ICE’s ability to use more detention beds than Congress intends to fund.” Trump wants enough money to support 52,000 detention beds, up from an average daily population of less than 41,000 in fiscal 2018.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California said House Democrats are still finalizing their proposal, which she said won’t shortchange other programs to make room for a wall.

In an interview, Cuellar kept to the theme that Democrats want strong border security, but not at the expense of other accounts in the Homeland Security bill.

“We have an allocation, so if you take billions of dollars and put it in the wall, who is going to suffer? Coast Guard, TSA, even Border Patrol. They are all going to suffer. So does that mean their services are not as good as the wall? No. Of course not,” he said.

The Texas Democrat, who represents Laredo and part of the state’s border with Mexico, said conference committee negotiators are going to have to decide how to use their allocation to fund border security in a broader way than just a physical barrier, in part because that may not be the most effective.

But additional funding for border barriers might not be completely off the table, Cuellar suggested.

“There are already 654 miles,” Cuellar said. “Under the Secure Fence Act, the minimum should be 700. We already added in the last appropriations 33 new miles, so if you add that to 654 there are only 13 miles left to hit the 700 mark. … I’m just sick and tired of people moving the goal post, so if we get somehow to 700 miles that should be it.”

‘Smart border security’

Republicans contended that investing in “smart border security” is useless if the government doesn’t construct a wall.

“Smart technology alone does not actually stop anyone from crossing into the U.S. illegally and if that is happening our borders are not secure,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Our Border Patrol tells us that they need physical barriers to help them do their job, not from coast to coast but strategically placed where traffic is highest.”

But both sides expressed optimism that the committee will be able to strike up a border security deal ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline, when the latest stopgap funding bill  expires.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who is not on the conference committee but who is a senior appropriator, said in an interview that he was confident that lawmakers can find money to fund construction of a substantial chunk of border wall during fiscal 2019 without having to cut from the Homeland Security bill’s other key accounts.

“There are a lot of other areas in this bill where you can find extra money and members will be working cooperatively to try to do this,” Cole said. “If they come to an agreement we’ll find the money to fund the agreement without savaging other Homeland accounts.”

Cole suggested that the conferees also reach a deal on raising the spending caps to allow for more spending on priorities for both sides. “I just think the real question will be: Can they arrive at a deal and is it going to be bigger than just Homeland, in which case all problems become solvable because you’ve made them big enough that you’ve provided the additional resources,” Cole said.

Trump weighed in on the talks hours before the first meeting, letting the conferees know that funding for a border barrier needs to be in any legislation they craft. If that panel “is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!” the president tweeted Wednesday.

If the committee doesn’t reach a border security deal or include funding for Trump’s border wall, it could result in another partial government shutdown. The last government shutdown lasted for 35 days and left some 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay, and cost the economy $3 billion that won’t be recovered, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report. 

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